Transformative Social Innovation and (Dis)Empowerment

15 June, 2017

Both public and academic discourses argue that the welfare state is being redefined – and share, in relation to the search for more sophisticated welfare models, a growing interest for ‘social innovation’ (SI). Considering the persistence and complexity of current societal challenges, however, the empowering and transforming potentials of social innovation are not self-evident. Therefore, the relations between social innovation, transformative change and empowerment are unpacked in this article.


This article responds to the increasing public and academic discourses on social innovation, which often rest on the assumption that social innovation can drive societal change and empower actors to deal with societal challenges and a retreating welfare state. In order to scrutinize this assumption, this article proposes a set of concepts to study the dynamics of transformative social innovation and underlying processes of multi-actor (dis)empowerment.

First, the concept of transformative social innovation is unpacked by proposing four foundational concepts to help distinguish between different pertinent ‘shades’ of change and innovation: 1) social innovation, (2) system innovation, (3) game-changers, and (4) narratives of change. These concepts, invoking insights from transitions studies and social innovations literature, are used to construct a conceptual account of how transformative social innovation emerges as a co-evolutionary interaction between diverse shades of change and innovation.

Second, the paper critically discusses the dialectic nature of multi-actor (dis)empowerment that underlies such processes of change and innovation. The paper then demonstrates how the conceptualisations are applied to three empirical case-studies of transformative social innovation: Impact Hub, Time Banks and Credit Unions.

In the conclusion we synthesise how the concepts and the empirical examples help to understand contemporary shifts in societal power relations and the changing role of the welfare state.


Avelino, F., J.M. Wittmayer, B. Pel, P. Weaver, A. Dumitru, A. Haxeltine, R. Kemp, M.S. Jørgensen, T. Bauler, S. Ruijsink, T. O’Riordan (2017)



Transformative Social Innovation and (Dis)Empowerment, Technological Forecasting and Social Change


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